Rick Santorum's Lasting Impact on American Politics

Although former Senator Rick Santorum recently dropped out of the Republican presidential race, he has made a lasting impact on American politics. Santorum took his fair share of heat for supporting an increased role of religion in public affairs. His policy positions including fighting against the dissemination of birth control have revived a larger discussion about the place of religion in the U.S.

In an opinion piece by Swiss Atheist Alain de Botton, he  advocates for a sort of “entrepreneurial” atheism, one that incorporatesthe “noble” and “beautiful” practices from religion which might help atheists live “better” and more “fulfilling” lives. While it is somewhat humorous for an atheist to use words like “noble” or “better,” he raises some legitimate points. “We have grown frightened of the word morality. We bridle at the thought of hearing a sermon. We flee from the idea that art should be uplifting or have an ethical mission. We don't go on pilgrimages. We can't build temples. We have no mechanisms for expressing gratitude,” he writes.

These observations are perhaps not without grounds:Alexis de Tocqueville wrote that “the great severity of mores that one remarks in the United States has its primary source in beliefs” (Vol 1 Part II Ch. 9).  In other words, the morality and ethics of Americans stem from our religious faith. For Tocqueville, writing in the late 1830s, those beliefs would be primarily Christian ones. It did not particularly matter to him what sort of Christian, either, since “what is most important to [society] is not so much that all citizens profess the true religion but that they profess a religion.”

Tocqueville’s observations here were part of a larger case on American morality as a whole. It was important to him to explain why America seems to work Tocqueville went on to say that there is “no country in the civilized world where [citizens] are less occupied with philosophy than in the United States” (Vol. 2 Part I Ch. 1). Without religion, how long could a country with no philosophy stand behind the principles of the Declaration of Independence? The Constitution?  

Our instinctive answer is likely “not very long.” Tocqueville talks about Americans as having a natural desire to “escape from the spirit of system,” “to take tradition only as information, and current facts only as a useful study for doing otherwise and better,” and “to strive for a result without letting themselves be chained to the means.” Very few of those things are useful for maintaining a constitutional republic founded upon self-evident truths and unalienable rights. One can see why someone like Botton feels a need to talk about the “noble” and the “beautiful”: Americans have a hard time believing in either one.

Of course, the great irony is that Botton talks about borrowing from religion while simultaneously ignoring the most basic tenet of most religions: that somewhere there exists an absolute good. In the American sense, our political “absolutegGood” was the Declaration of Independence, while our philosophical and theological good was the Christian God. Tocqueville wrote that while Europeans had always found the “spirit of religion” and the “spirit of freedom” to be in conflict, in America “they reigned together on the same soil” (Vol 1 Part II Ch. 9).

Thus, by holding our personal conviction to the existence of an absolute God, and our political conviction to the Declaration – and therefore the Constitution – we ought to have done pretty well.

That trend, however, does seem to be in decline. Some studies cast serious doubt on the strength of American Christianity, with only about a fifth of Americans regularly attending Sunday services.  Also, as Santorum has pointed out, our political rhetoric has become more and more secular.  President Obama, as most already know, has no problem agreeing to that: His “Call to Renewal” address asks for religious believers to use language which secular men and women find sensible, and to establish a “universal value” discourse for morality.

So what is the current state of affairs? In our private lives, many Americans lack the personal guidance to produce the “mores” which so defined this country. In our public lives, the language must partake of the secular and philosophical – and we remember how much Americans care about philosophy.

Of course, the difficult question is whether Americans can ever actually go back to their strong convictions.  The modern “enlightened” position is to reject faith and embrace pragmatic, “humanitarian” thought.  At the same time, we are in the midst of a period of great economic difficulty and international instability – perhaps calling the larger pragmatic/progressive system into question. Maybe it is time that Americans, seeing now the failure of secular politics, consider a return to their Christian ideals.

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